It’s been in the front of every grower’s mind for a while now—fertilizer prices are high, breaking all the previous records. If you’ve spent any time in conversation with growers or their retail partners in the past year, these topics have surely come up:
What will the fertilizer I need cost?
Can I get it here in time?
Should I even grow any corn this year?
Is there a cheaper way to get the nutrients I need?
These are all fair questions to ask, and with an uptick in the commodities market, people still want to grow crops that need a dose of fertility, but they also want to be responsible for how they spend that fertilizer budget.
What’s Driving the Fertilizer Market
While many factors increase fertilizer costs, supply chain issues are high on the list. As the pandemic slowed the production of many agricultural products, it also slowed production and exports from some of the largest fertilizer supplying countries. The weather had an impact on the major fertilizer-producing areas in the U.S. Less imported fertilizer and lower domestic production, combined with overall shipping and logistical issues, means fertilizer is more expensive to get to your farm.
As exciting as it is to watch commodity prices creep up, those high prices also lead to higher fertilizer prices. You need nutrients to make the yield that makes the money. So the key is finding ways to make those nutrients count. Wasted nutrients are wasted money.
How Can Farmers Get the Most Out of Their Fertilizer
Over the years, the industry has gotten better at telling farmers what their plants need—and when they need it. While it isn't always possible to spoon-feed every acre, taking advantage of the various tools and technologies available can help you make your fertilizer applications more effective.
Soil testing can help growers identify areas of the field where fertilizer can be applied more economically.
Variable-rate technology allows producers to optimize fertilizer use putting nutrients exactly where needed.
Splitting applications over the growing season may offer some flexibility to take advantage of lower prices in the future and ensure that plants have exactly what they need, right when they need it—limiting the amount lost.
Reducing nitrogen rates, focusing on the Maximum Return to Nitrogen (MRTN) rates to ensure profitability.
But all of these methods focus on applying the exact amounts of fertilizer a crop needs, with no consideration for the nutrients in the soil that are unavailable for plant uptake. Some research says that up to 98% of the nitrogen (N), 90% of phosphorus (P) and 98% of potassium (K) that are already in your soil cannot be accessed by the crop.
Healthy Soils Play a Role in Nutrient Availability
Healthy soils are crucial for growing any crop well, but they are vital for encouraging the efficient uptake of nutrients. There are three key properties of healthy soil: physical, chemical and biological.
Physical: Healthy soils should have a good structure, with plenty of pore space, internal drainage and available water. There should be little to no compaction in healthy soils.
Chemical: Healthy soils should have a pH of 6–7 for stable plant growth. Ideally, it should also have balanced macro and micronutrients.
Biological: Healthy soils should have a fair amount of organic matter in varying stages and a vibrant microbial population to support the breakdown of that organic matter.
Biostimulants are a tool that can help you improve the overall health of your soil and access those tied-up nutrients. While they have been around for years helping growers chase efficient nutrient use, it is expected that biostimulants will be a $4 billion segment of the industry by 2025.
What are Biostimulants
A growing part of the ag industry, biostimulants are biological crop input additives that encourage plant processes and enhance the success of other crop inputs such as fertilizer. They can help crops manage stressors such as drought or extreme temperatures, supplement plant health and attributes or improve a plant's ability to take hold of nutrients in the soil. The opportunity to maximize fertilizer uptake is especially significant in a high-cost fertilizer market. Biostimulants aren't a fertilizer, but they help your fertilizer work more efficiently.
How Do They Work
One way that biostimulants help improve nutrient uptake is by encouraging microbial activity in the soil. Microbes are any number of bacteria and other microscopic organisms in the soil that break down organic matter. As the microbes break down organic matter, they take the nutrients —such as NPK—and exchange them into a chemical form to which the plant can easily access. Plant health improves with more nutrients, meaning more dense root systems, more robust growth, greater ability to fight stress and greater yield potential. It also means a potential to be more efficient with the fertilizer applied.
Why You Need Them
Some studies say that up to 80% of microbes in the soil are dormant. They aren’t getting fed and aerated due to lack of water, soil type, compaction, etc. Because they aren't doing the enzymatic activity of breaking down organic matter, the amount of plant-available nutrition in your soil becomes limited to the easily accessible fertilizer formulations you put down. By adding biostimulants to your crop input mix, you can improve your crop’s access to nutrients already in the soil, meaning the potential for less applied fertilizer and even a yield increase, thanks to the plant health benefits of the biostimulant as well. By applying a biostimulant to the seed or in the furrow, you can increase the activity in the soil adjacent to the seed and developing plant, giving your crop a headstart on success.
Emergence and Early Growth
How a crop starts often determines how well the rest of the season will go. If a crop struggles early, it won't be at its best later in the season, when insect, disease and drought pressures occur. It also may not have the tools it needs to reach its highest yield potential. Consistent healthy emergence directly impacts yield, with uneven stands showing up to a 9% yield loss.
What factors can influence even emergence? They include:
Rotation and cover crop usage
With so many factors playing into your early success, it’s important to manage the variables you can control and take advantage where you can. Starter fertilizer and seed treatments can give your crop the early boost it needs, but adding a biostimulant to the input mix can give your crop the extra edge it needs to succeed.
How Agnition and Generate Can Help You Cut Fertilizer Costs
With its significant growth, the biostimulants segment can feel like a crowded space. So how can you choose the right one for your operation? The key is to choose a proven winner.
Generate® by Agnition fits the bill. In fields treated with Generate, the activity of microbes increased by almost 22%. Using Agnition’s patented Microbial Catalyst technology, Generate promotes enzymatic activity essential to breaking down cellulose, the main component of plant matter. Research shows that using Generate can double cellulosic activity, increasing the availability of macro-and micronutrients. Phospholipid Fatty Acids (PLFA) analysis tests conducted on soils treated with Generate showed an 18% increase in the total biomass of microbes in the soil, resulting in an 18% increase in availability of nitrogen (N), and increases of 10% to 12% in the availability of phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and manganese (Mn).
In 2-year trials in the Midwest, replacing starter fertilizer with Generate improved yields by an average of more than 3.5 bushels per acre. In separate corn-on-corn rotation trials, using Generate in combination with NPK increased total yield by 9.44 bushels-per-acre with standard NPK rates, and by 7.45 bushels-per-acre when NPK was reduced to 75% of normal.